SHE laughed, but she was rather angry too.
“He’s asleep! You were asleep,” she said, with contemptuous surprise.
“Is it really you?” muttered the prince, not quite himself as yet, and recognizing her with a start of amazement. “Oh yes, of course,” he added, “this is our rendezvous. I fell asleep here.”
“So I saw.”
“Did no one awake me besides yourself? Was there no one else here? I thought there was another woman.”
“There was another woman here?”
At last he was wide awake.
“It was a dream, of course,” he said, musingly. “Strange that I should have a dream like that at such a moment. Sit down—”
He took her hand and seated her on the bench; then sat down beside her and reflected.
Aglaya did not begin the conversation, but contented herself with watching her companion intently.
He looked back at her, but at times it was clear that he did not see her and was not thinking of her.
Aglaya began to flush up.
“Oh yes!” cried the prince, starting. “Hippolyte’s suicide—”
“What? At your house?” she asked, but without much surprise. “He was alive yesterday evening, wasn’t he? How could you sleep here after that?” she cried, growing suddenly animated.
“Oh, but he didn’t kill himself; the pistol didn’t go off.” Aglaya insisted on hearing the whole story. She hurried the prince along, but interrupted him with all sorts of questions, nearly all of which were irrelevant. Among other things, she seemed greatly interested in every word that Evgenie Pavlovitch had said, and made the prince repeat that part of the story over and over again.
“Well, that’ll do; we must be quick,” she concluded, after hearing all. “We have only an hour here, till eight; I must be home by then without fail, so that they may not find out that I came and sat here with you; but I’ve come on business. I have a great deal to say to you. But you have bowled me over considerably with your news. As to Hippolyte, I think his pistol was bound not to go off; it was more consistent with the whole affair. Are you sure he really wished to blow his brains out, and that there was no humbug about the matter?”
“No humbug at all.”
“Very likely. So he wrote that you were to bring me a copy of his confession, did he? Why didn’t you bring it?”
“Why, he didn’t die! I’ll ask him for it, if you like.”
“Bring it by all means; you needn’t ask him. He will be delighted, you may be sure; for, in all probability, he shot at himself simply in order that I might read his confession. Don’t laugh at what I say, please, Lef Nicolaievitch, because it may very well be the case.”
“I’m not laughing. I am convinced, myself, that that may have been partly the reason.
“You are convinced? You don’t really mean to say you think that honestly?” asked Aglaya, extremely surprised.
She put her questions very quickly and talked fast, every now and then forgetting what she had begun to say, and not finishing her sentence. She seemed to be impatient to warn the prince about something or other. She was in a state of unusual excitement, and though she put on a brave and even defiant air, she seemed to be rather alarmed. She was dressed very simply, but this suited her well. She continually trembled and blushed, and she sat on the very edge of the seat.
The fact that the prince confirmed her idea, about Hippolyte shooting himself that she might read his confession, surprised her greatly.
“Of course,” added the prince, “he wished us all to applaud his conduct—besides yourself.”
“How do you mean—applaud?”
“Well—how am I to explain? He was very anxious that we should all come around him, and say we were so sorry for him, and that we loved him very much, and all that; and that we hoped he wouldn’t kill himself, but remain alive. Very likely he thought more of you than the rest of us, because he mentioned you at such a moment, though perhaps he did not know himself that he had you in his mind’s eye.”
“I don’t understand you. How could he have me in view, and not be aware of it himself? And yet, I don’t know—perhaps I do. Do you know I have intended to poison myself at least thirty times—ever since I was thirteen or so—and to write to my parents before I did it? I used to think how nice it would be to lie in my coffin, and have them all weeping over me and saying it was all their fault for being so cruel, and all that—what are you smiling at?” she added, knitting her brow. “What do YOU think of when you go mooning about alone? I suppose you imagine yourself a field-marshal, and think you have conquered Napoleon?”
“Well, I really have thought something of the sort now and then, especially when just dozing off,” laughed the prince. “Only it is the Austrians whom I conquer—not Napoleon.”
“I don’t wish to joke with you, Lef Nicolaievitch. I shall see Hippolyte myself. Tell him so. As for you, I think you are behaving very badly, because it is not right to judge a man’s soul as you are judging Hippolyte’s. You have no gentleness, but only justice—so you are unjust.”
The prince reflected.
“I think you are unfair towards me,” he said. “There is nothing wrong in the thoughts I ascribe to Hippolyte; they are only natural. But of course I don’t know for certain what he thought. Perhaps he thought nothing, but simply longed to see human faces once more, and to hear human praise and feel human affection. Who knows? Only it all came out wrong, somehow. Some people have luck, and everything comes out right with them; others have none, and never a thing turns out fortunately.”
“I suppose you have felt that in your own case,” said Aglaya.
“Yes, I have,” replied the prince, quite unsuspicious of any irony in the remark.
“H’m—well, at all events, I shouldn’t have fallen asleep here, in your place. It wasn’t nice of you, that. I suppose you fall asleep wherever you sit down?”
“But I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I walked and walked about, and went to where the music was—”
“Where they played last night. Then I found this bench and sat down, and thought and thought—and at last I fell fast asleep.”
“Oh, is that it? That makes a difference, perhaps. What did you go to the bandstand for?”
“I don’t know; I—-”
“Very well—afterwards. You are always interrupting me. What woman was it you were dreaming about?”
“It was—about—you saw her—”
“Quite so; I understand. I understand quite well. You are very— Well, how did she appear to you? What did she look like? No, I don’t want to know anything about her,” said Aglaya, angrily; “don’t interrupt me—”
She paused a moment as though getting breath, or trying to master her feeling of annoyance.
“Look here; this is what I called you here for. I wish to make you a—to ask you to be my friend. What do you stare at me like that for?” she added, almost angrily.
The prince certainly had darted a rather piercing look at her, and now observed that she had begun to blush violently. At such moments, the more Aglaya blushed, the angrier she grew with herself; and this was clearly expressed in her eyes, which flashed like fire. As a rule, she vented her wrath on her unfortunate companion, be it who it might. She was very conscious of her own shyness, and was not nearly so talkative as her sisters for this reason—in fact, at times she was much too quiet. When, therefore, she was bound to talk, especially at such delicate moments as this, she invariably did so with an air of haughty defiance. She always knew beforehand when she was going to blush, long before the blush came.
“Perhaps you do not wish to accept my proposition?” she asked, gazing haughtily at the prince.
“Oh yes, I do; but it is so unnecessary. I mean, I did not think you need make such a proposition,” said the prince, looking confused.
“What did you suppose, then? Why did you think I invited you out here? I suppose you think me a ‘little fool,’ as they all call me at home?”
“I didn’t know they called you a fool. I certainly don’t think you one.”
“You don’t think me one! Oh, dear me!—that’s very clever of you; you put it so neatly, too.”
“In my opinion, you are far from a fool sometimes—in fact, you are very intelligent. You said a very clever thing just now about my being unjust because I had ONLY justice. I shall remember that, and think about it.”
Aglaya blushed with pleasure. All these changes in her expression came about so naturally and so rapidly—they delighted the prince; he watched her, and laughed.
“Listen,” she began again; “I have long waited to tell you all this, ever since the time when you sent me that letter—even before that. Half of what I have to say you heard yesterday. I consider you the most honest and upright of men—more honest and upright than any other man; and if anybody says that your mind is—is sometimes affected, you know—it is unfair. I always say so and uphold it, because even if your surface mind be a little affected (of course you will not feel angry with me for talking so—I am speaking from a higher point of view) yet your real mind is far better than all theirs put together. Such a mind as they have never even DREAMED of; because really, there are TWO minds— the kind that matters, and the kind that doesn’t matter. Isn’t it so?”
“May be! may be so!” said the prince, faintly; his heart was beating painfully.
“I knew you would not misunderstand me,” she said, triumphantly. “Prince S. and Evgenie Pavlovitch and Alexandra don’t understand anything about these two kinds of mind, but, just fancy, mamma does!”
“You are very like Lizabetha Prokofievna.”
“What! surely not?” said Aglaya.
“Yes, you are, indeed.”
“Thank you; I am glad to be like mamma,” she said, thoughtfully. “You respect her very much, don’t you?” she added, quite unconscious of the naiveness of the question.
“VERY much; and I am so glad that you have realized the fact.”
“I am very glad, too, because she is often laughed at by people. But listen to the chief point. I have long thought over the matter, and at last I have chosen you. I don’t wish people to laugh at me; I don’t wish people to think me a ‘little fool.’ I don’t want to be chaffed. I felt all this of a sudden, and I refused Evgenie Pavlovitch flatly, because I am not going to be forever thrown at people’s heads to be married. I want—I want— well, I’ll tell you, I wish to run away from home, and I have chosen you to help me.”
“Run away from home?” cried the prince.
“Yes—yes—yes! Run away from home!” she repeated, in a transport of rage. “I won’t, I won’t be made to blush every minute by them all! I don’t want to blush before Prince S. or Evgenie Pavlovitch, or anyone, and therefore I have chosen you. I shall tell you everything, EVERYTHING, even the most important things of all, whenever I like, and you are to hide nothing from me on your side. I want to speak to at least one person, as I would to myself. They have suddenly begun to say that I am waiting for you, and in love with you. They began this before you arrived here, and so I didn’t show them the letter, and now they all say it, every one of them. I want to be brave, and be afraid of nobody. I don’t want to go to their balls and things—I want to do good. I have long desired to run away, for I have been kept shut up for twenty years, and they are always trying to marry me off. I wanted to run away when I was fourteen years old—I was a little fool then, I know—but now I have worked it all out, and I have waited for you to tell me about foreign countries. I have never seen a single Gothic cathedral. I must go to Rome; I must see all the museums; I must study in Paris. All this last year I have been preparing and reading forbidden books. Alexandra and Adelaida are allowed to read anything they like, but I mayn’t. I don’t want to quarrel with my sisters, but I told my parents long ago that I wish to change my social position. I have decided to take up teaching, and I count on you because you said you loved children. Can we go in for education together—if not at once, then afterwards? We could do good together. I won’t be a general’s daughter any more! Tell me, are you a very learned man?”
“Oh no; not at all.”
“Oh-h-h! I’m sorry for that. I thought you were. I wonder why I always thought so—but at all events you’ll help me, won’t you? Because I’ve chosen you, you know.”
“Aglaya Ivanovna, it’s absurd.”
But I will, I WILL run away!” she cried—and her eyes flashed again with anger—“and if you don’t agree I shall go and marry Gavrila Ardalionovitch! I won’t be considered a horrible girl, and accused of goodness knows what.”
“Are you out of your mind?” cried the prince, almost starting from his seat. “What do they accuse you of? Who accuses you?”
“At home, everybody, mother, my sisters, Prince S., even that detestable Colia! If they don’t say it, they think it. I told them all so to their faces. I told mother and father and everybody. Mamma was ill all the day after it, and next day father and Alexandra told me that I didn’t understand what nonsense I was talking. I informed them that they little knew me— I was not a small child—I understood every word in the language— that I had read a couple of Paul de Kok’s novels two years since on purpose, so as to know all about everything. No sooner did mamma hear me say this than she nearly fainted!”
A strange thought passed through the prince’s brain; he gazed intently at Aglaya and smiled.
He could not believe that this was the same haughty young girl who had once so proudly shown him Gania’s letter. He could not understand how that proud and austere beauty could show herself to be such an utter child—a child who probably did not even now understand some words.
“Have you always lived at home, Aglaya Ivanovna?” he asked. “I mean, have you never been to school, or college, or anything?”
“No—never—nowhere! I’ve been at home all my life, corked up in a bottle; and they expect me to be married straight out of it. What are you laughing at again? I observe that you, too, have taken to laughing at me, and range yourself on their side against me,” she added, frowning angrily. “Don’t irritate me—I’m bad enough without that—I don’t know what I am doing sometimes. I am persuaded that you came here today in the full belief that I am in love with you, and that I arranged this meeting because of that,” she cried, with annoyance.
“I admit I was afraid that that was the case, yesterday,” blundered the prince (he was rather confused), “but today I am quite convinced that ”
“How?” cried Aglaya—and her lower lip trembled violently. “You were AFRAID that I—you dared to think that I—good gracious! you suspected, perhaps, that I sent for you to come here in order to catch you in a trap, so that they should find us here together, and make you marry me—”
“Aglaya Ivanovna, aren’t you ashamed of saying such a thing? How could such a horrible idea enter your sweet, innocent heart? I am certain you don’t believe a word of what you say, and probably you don’t even know what you are talking about.”
Aglaya sat with her eyes on the ground; she seemed to have alarmed even herself by what she had said.
“No, I’m not; I’m not a bit ashamed!” she murmured. “And how do you know my heart is innocent? And how dared you send me a love— letter that time?”
“LOVE-LETTER? My letter a love-letter? That letter was the most respectful of letters; it went straight from my heart, at what was perhaps the most painful moment of my life! I thought of you at the time as a kind of light. I—”
“Well, very well, very well!” she said, but quite in a different tone. She was remorseful now, and bent forward to touch his shoulder, though still trying not to look him in the face, as if the more persuasively to beg him not to be angry with her. “Very well,” she continued, looking thoroughly ashamed of herself, “I feel that I said a very foolish thing. I only did it just to try you. Take it as unsaid, and if I offended you, forgive me. Don’t look straight at me like that, please; turn your head away. You called it a ‘horrible idea’; I only said it to shock you. Very often I am myself afraid of saying what I intend to say, and out it comes all the same. You have just told me that you wrote that letter at the most painful moment of your life. I know what moment that was!” she added softly, looking at the ground again.
“Oh, if you could know all!”
“I DO know all!” she cried, with another burst of indignation. “You were living in the same house as that horrible woman with whom you ran away.” She did not blush as she said this; on the contrary, she grew pale, and started from her seat, apparently oblivious of what she did, and immediately sat down again. Her lip continued to tremble for a long time.
There was silence for a moment. The prince was taken aback by the suddenness of this last reply, and did not know to what he should attribute it.
“I don’t love you a bit!” she said suddenly, just as though the words had exploded from her mouth.
The prince did not answer, and there was silence again. “I love Gavrila Ardalionovitch,” she said, quickly; but hardly audibly, and with her head bent lower than ever.
“That is NOT true,” said the prince, in an equally low voice.
“What! I tell stories, do I? It is true! I gave him my promise a couple of days ago on this very seat.”
The prince was startled, and reflected for a moment.
“It is not true,” he repeated, decidedly; “you have just invented it!”
“You are wonderfully polite. You know he is greatly improved. He loves me better than his life. He let his hand burn before my very eyes in order to prove to me that he loved me better than his life!”
“He burned his hand!”
“Yes, believe it or not! It’s all the same to me!”
The prince sat silent once more. Aglaya did not seem to be joking; she was too angry for that.
“What! he brought a candle with him to this place? That is, if the episode happened here; otherwise I can’t ”
“Yes, a candle! What’s there improbable about that?”
“A whole one, and in a candlestick?”
“Yes—no-half a candle—an end, you know—no, it was a whole candle; it’s all the same. Be quiet, can’t you! He brought a box of matches too, if you like, and then lighted the candle and held his finger in it for half an hour and more!—There! Can’t that be?”
“I saw him yesterday, and his fingers were all right!”
Aglaya suddenly burst out laughing, as simply as a child.
“Do you know why I have just told you these lies?” She appealed to the prince, of a sudden, with the most childlike candour, and with the laugh still trembling on her lips. “Because when one tells a lie, if one insists on something unusual and eccentric— something too ‘out of the way’’ for anything, you know—the more impossible the thing is, the more plausible does the lie sound. I’ve noticed this. But I managed it badly; I didn’t know how to work it.” She suddenly frowned again at this point as though at some sudden unpleasant recollection.
“If”—she began, looking seriously and even sadly at him— “if when I read you all that about the ‘poor knight,’ I wished to-to praise you for one thing—I also wished to show you that I knew all—and did not approve of your conduct.”
“You are very unfair to me, and to that unfortunate woman of whom you spoke just now in such dreadful terms, Aglaya.”
“Because I know all, all—and that is why I speak so. I know very well how you—half a year since—offered her your hand before everybody. Don’t interrupt me. You see, I am merely stating facts without any comment upon them. After that she ran away with Rogojin. Then you lived with her at some village or town, and she ran away from you.” (Aglaya blushed dreadfully.) “Then she returned to Rogojin again, who loves her like a madman. Then you —like a wise man as you are—came back here after her as soon as ever you heard that she had returned to Petersburg. Yesterday evening you sprang forward to protect her, and just now you dreamed about her. You see, I know all. You did come back here for her, for her—now didn’t you?”
“Yes—for her!” said the prince softly and sadly, and bending his head down, quite unconscious of the fact that Aglaya was gazing at him with eyes which burned like live coals. “I came to find out something—I don’t believe in her future happiness as Rogojin’s wife, although—in a word, I did not know how to help her or what to do for her—but I came, on the chance.”
He glanced at Aglaya, who was listening with a look of hatred on her face.
“If you came without knowing why, I suppose you love her very much indeed!” she said at last.
“No,” said the prince, “no, I do not love her. Oh! if you only knew with what horror I recall the time I spent with her!”
A shudder seemed to sweep over his whole body at the recollection.
“Tell me about it,” said Aglaya.
“There is nothing which you might not hear. Why I should wish to tell you, and only you, this experience of mine, I really cannot say; perhaps it really is because I love you very much. This unhappy woman is persuaded that she is the most hopeless, fallen creature in the world. Oh, do not condemn her! Do not cast stones at her! She has suffered too much already in the consciousness of her own undeserved shame.
“And she is not guilty—oh God!—Every moment she bemoans and bewails herself, and cries out that she does not admit any guilt, that she is the victim of circumstances—the victim of a wicked libertine.
“But whatever she may say, remember that she does not believe it herself,—remember that she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature.
“When I tried to rid her soul of this gloomy fallacy, she suffered so terribly that my heart will never be quite at peace so long as I can remember that dreadful time!—Do you know why she left me? Simply to prove to me what is not true—that she is base. But the worst of it is, she did not realize herself that that was all she wanted to prove by her departure! She went away in response to some inner prompting to do something disgraceful, in order that she might say to herself—‘There—you’ve done a new act of shame—you degraded creature!’
“Oh, Aglaya—perhaps you cannot understand all this. Try to realize that in the perpetual admission of guilt she probably finds some dreadful unnatural satisfaction—as though she were revenging herself upon someone.
“Now and then I was able to persuade her almost to see light around her again; but she would soon fall, once more, into her old tormenting delusions, and would go so far as to reproach me for placing myself on a pedestal above her (I never had an idea of such a thing!), and informed me, in reply to my proposal of marriage, that she ‘did not want condescending sympathy or help from anybody.’ You saw her last night. You don’t suppose she can be happy among such people as those—you cannot suppose that such society is fit for her? You have no idea how well-educated she is, and what an intellect she has! She astonished me sometimes.”
“And you preached her sermons there, did you?”
“Oh no,” continued the prince thoughtfully, not noticing Aglaya’s mocking tone, “I was almost always silent there. I often wished to speak, but I really did not know what to say. In some cases it is best to say nothing, I think. I loved her, yes, I loved her very much indeed; but afterwards—afterwards she guessed all.”
“What did she guess?”
“That I only PITIED her—and—and loved her no longer!”
“How do you know that? How do you know that she is not really in love with that—that rich cad—the man she eloped with?”
“Oh no! I know she only laughs at him; she has made a fool of him all along.”
“Has she never laughed at you?”
“No—in anger, perhaps. Oh yes! she reproached me dreadfully in anger; and suffered herself, too! But afterwards—oh! don’t remind me—don’t remind me of that!”
He hid his face in his hands.
“Are you aware that she writes to me almost every day?”
“So that is true, is it?” cried the prince, greatly agitated. “I had heard a report of it, but would not believe it.”
“Whom did you hear it from?” asked Aglaya, alarmed. “Rogojin said something about it yesterday, but nothing definite.”
“Yesterday! Morning or evening? Before the music or after?”
“After—it was about twelve o’clock.”
“Ah! Well, if it was Rogojin—but do you know what she writes to me about?”
“I should not be surprised by anything. She is mad!”
“There are the letters.” (Aglaya took three letters out of her pocket and threw them down before the prince.) “For a whole week she has been entreating and worrying and persuading me to marry you. She—well, she is clever, though she may be mad—much cleverer than I am, as you say. Well, she writes that she is in love with me herself, and tries to see me every day, if only from a distance. She writes that you love me, and that she has long known it and seen it, and that you and she talked about me— there. She wishes to see you happy, and she says that she is certain only I can ensure you the happiness you deserve. She writes such strange, wild letters—I haven’t shown them to anyone. Now, do you know what all this means? Can you guess anything?”
“It is madness—it is merely another proof of her insanity!” said the prince, and his lips trembled.
“You are crying, aren’t you?”
“No, Aglaya. No, I’m not crying.” The prince looked at her.
“Well, what am I to do? What do you advise me? I cannot go on receiving these letters, you know.”
“Oh, let her alone, I entreat you!” cried the prince. What can you do in this dark, gloomy mystery? Let her alone, and I’ll use all my power to prevent her writing you any more letters.”
“If so, you are a heartless man!” cried Aglaya. As if you can’t see that it is not myself she loves, but you, you, and only you! Surely you have not remarked everything else in her, and only not THIS? Do you know what these letters mean? They mean jealousy, sir—nothing but pure jealousy! She—do you think she will ever really marry this Rogojin, as she says here she will? She would take her own life the day after you and I were married.”
The prince shuddered; his heart seemed to freeze within him. He gazed at Aglaya in wonderment; it was difficult for him to realize that this child was also a woman.
“God knows, Aglaya, that to restore her peace of mind and make her happy I would willingly give up my life. But I cannot love her, and she knows that.”
“Oh, make a sacrifice of yourself! That sort of thing becomes you well, you know. Why not do it? And don’t call me ‘Aglaya’; you have done it several times lately. You are bound, it is your DUTY to ‘raise’ her; you must go off somewhere again to soothe and pacify her. Why, you love her, you know!”
“I cannot sacrifice myself so, though I admit I did wish to do so once. Who knows, perhaps I still wish to! But I know for CERTAIN, that if she married me it would be her ruin; I know this and therefore I leave her alone. I ought to go to see her today; now I shall probably not go. She is proud, she would never forgive me the nature of the love I bear her, and we should both be ruined. This may be unnatural, I don’t know; but everything seems unnatural. You say she loves me, as if this were LOVE! As if she could love ME, after what I have been through! No, no, it is not love.”
“How pale you have grown!” cried Aglaya in alarm.
Oh, it’s nothing. I haven’t slept, that’s all, and I’m rather tired. I—we certainly did talk about you, Aglaya.”
“Oh, indeed, it is true then! YOU COULD ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT ME WITH HER; and—and how could you have been fond of me when you had only seen me once?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps it was that I seemed to come upon light in the midst of my gloom. I told you the truth when I said I did not know why I thought of you before all others. Of course it was all a sort of dream, a dream amidst the horrors of reality. Afterwards I began to work. I did not intend to come back here for two or three years—”
“Then you came for her sake?” Aglaya’s voice trembled.
“Yes, I came for her sake.”
There was a moment or two of gloomy silence. Aglaya rose from her seat.
“If you say,” she began in shaky tones, “if you say that this woman of yours is mad—at all events I have nothing to do with her insane fancies. Kindly take these three letters, Lef Nicolaievitch, and throw them back to her, from me. And if she dares,” cried Aglaya suddenly, much louder than before, “if she dares so much as write me one word again, tell her I shall tell my father, and that she shall be taken to a lunatic asylum.”
The prince jumped up in alarm at Aglaya’s sudden wrath, and a mist seemed to come before his eyes.
“You cannot really feel like that! You don’t mean what you say. It is not true,” he murmured.
“It IS true, it IS true,” cried Aglaya, almost beside herself with rage.
“What’s true? What’s all this? What’s true?” said an alarmed voice just beside them.
Before them stood Lizabetha Prokofievna.
“Why, it’s true that I am going to marry Gavrila Ardalionovitch, that I love him and intend to elope with him tomorrow,” cried Aglaya, turning upon her mother. “Do you hear? Is your curiosity satisfied? Are you pleased with what you have heard?”
Aglaya rushed away homewards with these words.
“H’m! well, YOU are not going away just yet, my friend, at all events,” said Lizabetha, stopping the prince. “Kindly step home with me, and let me have a little explanation of the mystery. Nice goings on, these! I haven’t slept a wink all night as it is.”
The prince followed her.